Commentary Magazine


Nixon: The Education of a Politician 1913-1962, by Stephen E. Ambrose

The Vocation of Politics

Nixon: The Education of a Politician 1913-1962.
by Stephen E. Ambrose.
Simon & Schuster. 732 pp. $22.95.

During his 1962 bid for the California governorship, Richard Nixon was not helped by the remark of the master of ceremonies at one of his fund-raising dinners: “Too many people are saying, ‘I don’t like Nixon, but I don’t know why.’”

People are still saying that. On the other hand, many say that they do not just not like Nixon, they hate him—and they think they know why. During the same 1962 race, the pollster Samuel Lubell found “an almost unbelievable personal bitterness toward Nixon among many California voters.” Toward very few contemporary politicians (Senator Edward Kennedy comes to mind) is there a widespread animosity intense and nasty enough to warrant the word hatred. Richard Nixon has known what it means to be hated since his first, and successful, race for Congress against Jerry Voorhis in 1946.

Now, thirteen years after he resigned from the Presidency in disgrace, we are told that Nixon is back. His rehabilitation, if that is what it is, will likely be advanced by this first volume of Stephen Ambrose’s biography. Ambrose, professor of history at the University of New Orleans, is given a large part of the credit for the enhanced standing of Eisenhower in recent years. It was no little achievement that Ambrose’s two-volume biography helped rescue Eisenhower from the derision of his detractors. To rescue Nixon from the hatred of his enemies is much the more daunting task. Those who have a deep stake in despising Richard Nixon are almost certainly not going to be converted by this volume. But those who have disliked him for reasons they did not quite understand will have occasion to think again. They may not turn to actually liking Nixon, but they may leave this book sharing Ambrose’s respect for the man.

As Gary Hart has recently discovered to his sorrow, Americans are not very good at separating personality (some call it character) from the issues. Unlike Hart, and despite several efforts to pin him with the charge of taking money on the side, Richard Nixon has been above reproach in his personal life. To put it differently, his personal life has been his political purpose.

The elusiveness of the private Nixon, which is presumably the real Nixon, is a constant theme in this book, as it has been in most writing about Nixon. The absence of evidence on this score is interpreted as an invitation to speculate and has been seized with enthusiasm by writers with an argument to make. Thus we have been favored with David Abrahamsen’s Nixon vs. Nixon: An Emotional Tragedy, Bruce Mazlish’s In Search of Nixon: A Psychohistorical Inquiry, Fawn Brodie’s Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character, and Garry Wills’s Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man. The last, in sharp contrast to Wills’s more recent fabulations regarding Ronald Reagan, has the merit of being an imaginative exercise of considerable force. But Ambrose departs from this genre altogether. He appears to be one of those historians who believe that in the absence of evidence you should not make it up.

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What is known about the personal Nixon—and Ambrose’s researches seem to be exhaustive—is told here with care and economy. Nixon’s private life is, for the most part, his family life. In this connection, Ambrose’s treatment of Pat Nixon is extensive and unstinting in its admiration. Far from her being “Plastic Pat,” always playing whatever role her husband dictated for the moment, one gains the impression of a gracefully determined woman who had securely ordered her loves and loyalties, putting Richard Nixon and his public career at the top of the list.

It seems that Nixon was intimate with no one else. Those who, like Bebe Rebozo, were deemed to be close friends appear to have been useful sycophants, although Ambrose does not use the term. From his school days in Whittier, California, through his law-school years at Duke, and during his time in the Navy, many people respected and trusted Nixon, but almost to a person they say they never really knew him. In the early years, before he ran for political office, Ambrose reports that everyone agrees Richard Nixon was precisely the kind of man from whom one would not hesitate to buy a used car. But from the first campaign his politics was the politics of division, and then many began to dislike, distrust, and hate him, even as many others came to support and admire him, but seldom to like, never mind love, him.

Ambrose is telling a story more than he is making an argument. And yet the story is interspersed with judgments, and his judgments are frequently inconsistent. One consistent judgment, however, is that Richard Nixon was always much more at ease before a crowd than in person-to-person contacts, especially with his peers. We are told that Nixon was one of the great politicians of the century but he could never, like FDR or Lyndon Johnson, work personality and friendship to political purpose. To support Richard Nixon was to support his policies, and the career that advanced those policies. His life, we are led to conclude, is one of sweated earnestness, of competition without camaraderie. There were personal alliances but few personal bonds, and those alliances were always aimed at moving the crowds, which is to say, the voters. The goal was to get a majority by division. Ambrose observes: “He divided people along party lines, but he refused to use race, class, or religion as his issues. In these areas, where the American people were already sharply divided, Nixon tried to bring them together.”

That observation comes in connection with the 1960 race against John F. Kennedy, which Ambrose thinks was Nixon’s finest. Throughout the period covered by this first volume, however, Nixon refused to exploit some of the deepest fissures in the American public, especially that of race. Some readers may be surprised to learn how deep and consistent was Nixon’s support for civil rights. He was much respected by key black leaders, although that respect was seldom translated into votes, and Nixon’s position on race placed a severe strain on his relations with the right wing of the Republican party which was his core constituency.

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Ambrose, who apparently started out not thinking very highly of Richard Nixon, says at several points that Nixon was a great man. What makes for greatness is a subject of interminable debate, but Ambrose’s telling of the story fails to persuade at least this reader that the Nixon portrayed here is a great man. He is convincingly presented as a man relentless in the pursuit of his goals, possessed of a powerful sense of political responsibility, and unswervingly faithful to a few guiding ideas.

The word faithful has a religious ring, and that seems entirely appropriate to the Nixon portrayed. Formal religion, in his case Quaker religion, played little evident part in Nixon’s life after his teen-age years. Presumably his many and long discussions with Billy Graham had something to do with religion (it is hard to imagine Mr. Graham discussing much else for very long). But one is led to believe that the religion to which Richard Nixon was faithful was the religion of political purpose.

This is to say something more than that politics—in the sense of the contest for power—was Nixon’s religion. To make politics one’s religion is, religiously speaking, idolatrous and, psychologically speaking, disastrous. Nixon’s religion of political purpose was more elevated than that. Although Ambrose does not put it this way, the Nixon of this book had a calling, a vocation, to advance a great truth, and that truth was political freedom.

It was a truth well worth dividing people over. More precisely, Nixon’s purpose was to bring to political expression the fact that people were already divided over the importance of freedom. Nixon, in short, was an anti-Communist. That was the most important political thing he was, and the most important thing he was was political.

In Alger Hiss the calling and the occasion converged to make Nixon a national figure of consequence. Alger Hiss was in his view neither eccentric nor deviant but a representative of the enemy. For Nixon, the nature and mission of the enemy were discovered in the Hiss case and diagnosed in Whit-taker Chambers’s Witness. This was the dark antithesis to freedom’s truth and, in the opinion of many, the dark side of Richard Nixon. Behind Herblock’s caricature of a sleazy and tricky Nixon they detected a sinister Nixon in the grips of a metaphysical obsession with the threat of Communism.

The argument might be made that Nixon would not have encountered such animosity had he been as musical in articulating freedom’s cause as he was combative in opposing freedom’s foes. But that would be to overlook the fact that there were, and are, enemies of the democratic proposition whose hatred of Nixon was eminently sensible from their viewpoint. No mere change of “style” would have won them over. As for those who were put off by Nixon’s belligerent manner, Ambrose’s account suggests that he rendered a service by tempering and bringing into the mainstream of democratic discourse whatever was legitimate in the screeds of the reckless and extreme, such as Joseph McCarthy and the John Birch Society.

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The meaning of the subtitle of this first volume, “The Education of a Politician,” is not self-evident and is not explained. If education means growth and learning, there is little education here. There is no indication that Nixon read anything or talked with anyone about matters not directly related to the advancement of his political purpose. There is no evidence of intellectual curiosity ranging beyond the boundaries of the work that was his to do. By the end of his formal education Nixon knew that he had a remarkable capacity for leadership by virtue of hard work, combative engagement, and persuasive talent. By the end of his first term in Congress he knew that he had found his cause in anti-Communism. The rest is detail.

That is not to say that the rest is dull. In fact this telling of Nixon’s story entails all the dramas, high and low, that shaped our political culture as we entered the night of the 60′s. Nixon is competently, sometimes brightly, written, and one gets the impression that Ambrose is striving, above all, to be assiduously fair. In that he seems to have succeeded. As for the Richard Nixon we meet here, the subtitle might better have been “The Vocation of a Politician”—and to that vocation he was faithful. Of course this volume takes us only to 1962 and we are inclined to read the story through the lens of subsequent events. It is the notable achievement of Stephen Ambrose that he compels us to reread subsequent events through the lens of the story he tells.

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